This is a story of sexual abuse and misogyny. It includes direct references to abusive language, and should be read with care by everyone who decides to read it, but especially by people for whom stories of abuse and misogyny are freighted with the trauma of personal memory.
It’s also a story about young men at their worst and at their best, and as such is likely to bother readers who want to see abusers portrayed as villains, elite hockey players as gods, and men who take on the hard work of resisting rape culture in a hyper-masculine context as heroes.
Rather than lingering long on the misogyny and abuse, the story moves on quickly to how elite hockey players have been enlisted into fighting against a misogynist culture, and how their roles—as abusers, villains, gods and heroes and, crucially, as role models to young male hockey fans—can be replicated in other contexts where sexual abuse is a commonplace instrument of hyper-masculinity.
Like a lot stories about sexual abuse, this one begins with two strangers noticing each other across a crowded room, and exchanging non-verbal indications of their mutual physical attraction. In this case, the crowded room was Tinder, a hookup app that about 50 million people have downloaded onto their phones since it launched in 2013.
Tinder users are presented with pictures of potential sexual partners, swiping to the right if the person interests them and left if they don’t. A mutual swipe right registers as a match, following which one potential partner—usually the male—will ‘slide into’ the other’s direct messages, in the hopes of turning mutual attraction into mutually exciting casual sex.
It often doesn’t go well, as our story shows.
The young male in our story, 19 years old at the time, was Greg Betzold, a professional junior hockey player, a forward for the Peterborough Petes. At some point in the exchange, the conversation evidently shifted to the woman’s reluctance to have sex with him, and the apparent absurdity of that reluctance given his status. Betzold became verbally abusive, calling the woman he was messaging a “dumb stupid cunt.”
Around the same time, another Ontario Hockey League (OHL) player, Belleville Bulls team captain Jake Marchment, used a teammate’s Tinder account to berate a young woman who turned him down during an exchange of direct messages, calling her a “dumb cunt.” Key parts of both exchanges were released on Twitter on November 3, 2014, and two days later the OHL suspended Betzold and Marchment for an unprecedented 15 games.
While the story of Betzold and Marchment’s abusive behaviour and suspension was working its way through the media cycle, Peterborough Petes General Manager Mike Oke quietly approached Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC), asking for guidance on how to respond on a more structural level to the problem the controversy had exposed.
“Initially I just sought their assistance and advice as to how we could better educate our players,” Oke remembers, but the conversation quickly became the basis of a partnership and a longer-term strategy for changing the culture of hockey.
From the start, the collaboration was exciting, says KSAC’s Community Engagement manager Lisa Clarke.
“Some of this work had been done in football, but none in hockey.” In developing a program for the Petes, KSAC collaborated with Waterloo’s Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), which already had a successful program called Male Allies.
The initial collaboration, which eventually came to be known as OHL Onside, reflected the different cultures of the partner organizations. Whereas Oke underscored the importance of his players being made “more aware” of “language and how it impacts others around them,” for Clarke the central aspect of the program was that it was “not disciplinary but participatory… not shaming men but building a conversation about how to disrupt the culture that tells some men and many young men and boys these myths about masculinity.”
A year later, long after the controversies around Betzold and Marchment had disappeared from the news, Oke began pushing for the program to be offered to players throughout the league. “We saw the benefits,” said Oke, and determined that it was “probably the kind of program that all athletes would benefit from.”
At the heart of OHL Onside is the concept of the continuum of harm. Players are asked to discuss the intent and impacts of a variety of activities, from catcalling a woman walking down the street or saying another player “plays like a girl” to sharing photos of ‘puck bunnies’ with teammates and rape. The idea of the exercise is to see the links between behaviour that is commonplace and behaviour that is extreme. “We know that young men see behaviours that are normal as being of little harm,” Clarke says.
OHL Onside tries to “open up empathy” by examining those behaviours from the perspective of those affected by them—women, as well as queer, trans, and non-binary people, but also men.
It also uses the concept of the man box, which is meant to illustrate the harmfulness of narrow notions of masculinity by asking the players to reflect on what qualities fit in the box of masculinity, and how what fits in the man box fits with their experience of positive male role models—men who have been supportive and caring in their lives.
When players are asked what qualities they admire in men, Clarke says, “it’s invariably about care, loving, always showing up, someone you can go to when you have a concern/problem.” By asking players whether the behaviour they admire in men belongs inside the box or outside it, they begin to get at the constructedness of masculinity, as well as the harms it conceals.
The key to the success of OHL Onside, Clarke believes, is the way it addresses players, inviting them to become active participants in remoulding norms of masculinity, rather than simply chastising them for bad behaviour or telling them what to do and what not to do.
By making hockey players “leaders in their own change,” Clarke says, the program grafts a commitment to challenging misogyny and toxic masculinity onto the players’ existing positive value system: their strong sense of responsibility for team members, and the aspiration to be leaders and role models in the sport more generally, that is a huge part of the culture of elite athletics.
“We believe that learning from both female and male educators who understand hockey is the key,” Clarke says. “You can’t be fake in this conversation.” A program like OHL Onside will only succeed in actually changing the attitudes and actions of junior hockey players if they “understand the factors in elite athletics and hockey that contribute to these myths about masculinity.”
The question of how to ‘reach’ people who harm is vexed, and has aroused considerable controversy in recent years.
The growing confidence of outright reactionary cultures, from anti-feminist to white supremacist, has brought with it significant debate about the possibilities for inoculating people against hate or, more ambitiously, for converting active haters.
Most controversially, the support for Donald Trump in 2016 among record high numbers of white and male voters triggered conflicting speculation: was this support deep seated, reflecting a commitment to misogyny and white supremacy that defied other appeals? Or was it circumstantial, such that Bernie Sanders would have won with a campaign that underlined shared economic concerns rather than the divisions Trump exploited?
This debate is often caricatured as being about whether it’s right to call people who participate in misogyny misogynists, and people who support racism racists—a framing that reflects a simplistic opposition between telling the truth and lying, ignoring the cultural nuances at play in effective political work. There are many ways to invite someone into a conversation and, if you want the invitation to arrive at its destination, you have to think about what works and what doesn’t, rather than deciding how to address people based on what you think they deserve to hear.
Changing people is about interpolation, inviting people to be part of the process of change. You can do that by tearing people down, like a boot camp army sergeant, or you can build on their ethics, building an appreciation for the worth of other people on the foundations of their own self-worth. OHL Onside works because it takes the latter approach.
Rather than being interpolated as monsters or bad men, young athletes are interpolated as leaders, as good men in the making.
The fact that they are surrounded by aggressive masculinity, and actively tempted to participate in rape culture as part of participating in hockey culture, is part of the curriculum, but not the part that makes it work.
Its strategic use of hockey’s existing value system to create value change is the core of the program’s success. It works in that context because the ideal of being a positive role model, being a leader of other young men, is a core value of professional sports. Whether a similar program would work for artists or for politicians would depend on finding a similar hook in the existing value system, and attaching a new culture onto it.
KSAC recently hosted a screening of A Better Man, a harrowing documentary film in which a man who had physically and verbally abused the filmmaker when they were in a relationship in the 1990s struggles to come to terms with his actions and their impact, slowly and painfully struggling through blank self-pity towards empathy for her.
Clarke praises the film as an effective illustration of “restorative practice,” a difficult and fraught process in which men who have harmed people take active responsibility for their actions and their effects, rather than—or possibly in addition to—facing formal sanctions. Key to good restorative practice, Clarke says, is that “the survivor of abuse got the closure she needed to move on with her life and the man really understood and accepted responsibility for the harm he created.”
This kind of practice is important in part because the legal system is such a poor instrument for addressing sexual violence and abuse. “90% of sexual assaults are not reported to police,” Clarke notes, “or a survivor reports and doesn’t feel closure.” Developing alternate ways of restoring community and acknowledging harm and, potentially, preventing further abuse, is a key challenge today.
Now the question is how something like OHL Onside can be developed for other sectors.
“We know that there is harm happening in the arts community,” Clarke says. Now the focus is on “building voices of men, specific to different sectors, who can help to be engaged bystanders of problematic behaviours of harassment and abuse.”
Tackling the problem in the pop music, an arena like sports in which access to women’s bodies has long been normalized as a perk of success in the profession, will be a challenge. The earnest appeal to leadership that works so well for young hockey players would feel hokey to most artists, and the revelation that actions have emotional consequences would not be experienced as quite the same life-altering revelation.
It could be that what artists need is the opposite of what hockey players need: to graft a sense of collective responsibility, a team feeling, onto a heightened awareness of the emotional resonances of actions, which artists already claim as their exceptional gift, even if such an awareness allows them still to fuck with other people’s bodies and emotions without real remorse. It’s arguably a messier morass, with a much longer arc.
In junior hockey, we’re really talking about teenage boys—albeit teenagers who are widely idolized by their peers and treated like adults by adult fans. At a time when most of their peers are awkwardly learning how to establish relationships, junior hockey players are offered sex routinely with no expectation of the basic social reciprocity of dating. It’s a strange way to grow up. It’s a good thing they get help that improves their odds of being the kind of men they want to become.
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